Hells Canyon Adventures – Snake River Rafting
I’ve come to Idaho for a number of reasons, including visiting Ernest Hemingway’s grave in Ketchum, but the top one is definitely to travel through Hells Canyon. It is a ten mile stretch of water on the Snake River just below the Hells Canyon Dam that links Idaho and Oregon in the middle of Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Not only is it famous for its whitewater, but it also happens to be, at 8,000 feet, the deepest canyon in North America, substantially deeper than the much more famous Grand Canyon. Naturally, ever since I first learned this fact I have wanted to experience the canyon from the water and recently with my son Dale, we got to do that with Hells Canyon Adventures. There are quite a number of companies offering Hells Canyon experiences, but in my opinion, Hells Canyon Adventures offers the best way to really enjoy the river and the canyon. Here’s why.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been told to “Go to Hell”, but actually getting there is not that easy. Hell’s Canyon is in a very remote part of western Idaho with only one road into the dam, below which Hells Canyon Adventures starts and ends its day long excursion on the Snake River. Mind you its an incredibly scenic drive and probably most people who drive this road are doing it for the scenery and not because they are going whitewater rafting.
Unless you are prepared to get up super early and drive a considerable distance to reach Hells Canyon Dam, the best bet is to stay in one of the four campgrounds operated by Idaho Power within the National Recreation Area. We stayed in Hells Canyon Park which is the closest to the dam, about a thirty minute drive. It also happened to be a beautiful, well maintained campground right on the river which had electric and water hookups for our RV. This is the view of the river from a dock from which you could swim or fish.
Why Hells Canyon Adventures?
If you search the internet for outfits offering tours in Hells Canyon you’ll find quite a number, but other than Hells Canyon Adventures whose website you’ll find here, none of them offer a combination of whitewater rafting and jet boating. As well, they all leave from places well downstream from the dam and many use huge jet boats that reminded me of cruise ships compared to the tiny rafts we were on. We came across one where the people were packed like sardines inside a giant tin. Hells Canyon Adventures offers multiple choices for trips including one that involves just seeing the river by jet boat, but Dale and I wanted to raft the river and the day long trip which combines rafting down and a jet boat return was the perfect solution.
We could not have picked a nicer day to explore Hells Canyon; the skies were clear and the temperature was soon in the 80’s. We arrived at Hells Canyon Dam in plenty of time and joined a group of about a couple dozen who were signed up for various trips that morning. This is the view from the dam. Hells Canyon Adventures is just at the end of that road on the left side of the river where you’ll find a small interpretive center and a place to park your vehicle.
There are basically three types of boats that you’ll find on the Snake River in the Hells Canyon area. The first are the motorized jet boats that have engines powerful enough to drive their way upstream through rapids that at first sight would seem to be impossible to ascend. The second are the inflatable rafts that are commonly used to shoot whitewater. They of course are not motorized and use only manpower (or womanpower) and gravity to go only downriver. Lastly are these high-prowed river boats that don’t look much different than the ones John Wesley Powell used to traverse the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon over 150 years earlier. This photo shows all three.
Here is a map of Hells Canyon showing the various whitewater spots we’ll need to traverse on the way to Sheep Creek which is where we will end the rafting and return by jet boat.
Our particular group was divided between two inflatable rafts. In one, the participants all had to paddle and Dale opted for this, positioning himself at the front of course. The guide steered this raft from the back with a pair of oars.
In the other raft, the oarsman sat in the middle of the raft and did all the work while the participants freeloaded off his efforts, nary lifting a finger to help out. Actually this was perfect for me as I had my waterproof camera and hoped to get some good video which I could not have done if I had to paddle. So here we go.
Rafting the Snake River
This photo shows the departure area which we left exactly on time at 9:00 AM
We were joined on this trip by Mark Yates, the owner of Hells Canyon Adventures, who told me that it had been sometime since he’d done the raft trip, but that it was such a beautiful day he couldn’t stay behind.
Our oarsman was Hayden, who handled the small raft with the dexterity and skill that could only be acquired with years of training. This video gives a brief idea of how different this type of rowing is compared to the usual where the rower has his back to the direction of travel and the oars are firmly in place. In Hayden’s case the oars are on a swivel and each arm works independently of the other with the oarsman facing forward most of the time.
Okay we’re off to a pretty calm start and it is amazingly beautiful out here on the water. Other than the sound of the water it’s almost dead quiet, almost eerily so.
Soon we get our first taste of whitewater; it’s pretty tame, but still gives us all a rush.
However, things soon start to get a lot more serious as the next set of rapids needs to be reconnoitred before we attempt them. We pull over and hop out to check them out from above and this is what we see.
As luck would have it, we get to see a jet boat take on these same rapids from below and get an idea of what we are in for on the way back.
Okay, now it’s our turn.
After getting drenched I’m glad to see nobody went overboard and that I still have my camera. Mark explains to me that the route through Hells Canyon constantly changes depending on the volume of water in the river. Those white lines on the canyon walls give an idea of just how much higher the river level can get and how much more dangerous this trip would be if the volume of water was doubled or even tripled.
For a good ways we have no real whitewater and it gives me a chance to look around and appreciate the grandeur of Hells Canyon.
We’ve been out about three hours when we pull over to a small beach where Hayden and Matt, the other guide, put together a nice buffet lunch. Afterwards we head up a short, but steep trail to find, of all things, a place that is on the National Register of Historic Places.
This is McGaffee Cabin where seven children were raised in the early 20th century and the McGaffee’s literally scraped out a living as farmers in this remote location.
Dale and I ponder moving in, but there’s no internet so how would we survive?
Also of great interest on the lunch stopover is this set of Aboriginal pictographs found on a rock wall at a place that Matt says would have been part of a well concealed dwelling place. From what I can gather on the internet they would have been created by the Nez Perce people, possibly as early as two thousand years ago. Apparently there are over one hundred recorded pictographs in Hells Canyon. This was really an unexpected highlight of the day.
Returning to our rafts with full stomachs and musing over both the pictographs and life at McGaffee cabin, it was easy to forget that there were more rapids ahead and according to Hayden, these would be the toughest to navigate on today’s trip. If there was a place we would flip, it would be between here and Sheep Creek our turnaround point, starting with the Waterspout then Sluice Creek Rapids and lastly Rush Creek Rapids.
Waterspout is tricky because it has a huge hole behind a large rock that can literally suck a small boat into and pin it under, but Hayden does a great job of avoiding it. Sluice Creek is also handled nicely. I gave the camera to Dale at lunch so he could record what it was like from his raft. This is their trip through Rush Creek Rapids – it was just a hairy as it looks and was a great way to end the rafting part of the trip.
Just before reaching Sheep Creek we passed this young black bear (yes, they can be brown as well) who was nonchalantly sitting on his duff watching the idiot humans on the river trying to drown themselves.
Pulling in a Sheep Creek we followed the stream up to a nice cool little pond and celebrated our successful descent through Hells Canyon.
We also found these delicious small plums that were a remnant of the ranch that once existed here.
The jet boat was waiting for us and we boarded for the trip upriver. It was a lot faster, despite going against the flow and almost, but not quite as exciting as the rafting. Here are a couple videos showing the jet boat plowing through the rapids.
These are the same rapids that we saw the jet boat come up earlier in the day. Let’s see how our boat makes out.
Not long after this we were back at the landing point with the thought of rafting through Hells Canyon with Hells Canyon Adventures already a memory and not an anticipation, but I got it all on film (or at least what passes for film these days). There is no question, but that this was a bucket list day for both father and son.